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Last Call 2010: The Art of Craft Beer 

Northeast Ohio's breweries keep a classic tradition alive

Cleveland's love affair with beer dates back at least to 1852 and Charles Gehring, the pioneer brewmaster who created the first locally made lager. By 1910, the city had 26 breweries slaking our thirst with everything from Black Label to P.O.C.

Today, those brands of yore have been replaced by a new business model: the craft or micro brewery, focused on award-winning flavors, bold styles, and exclusive distribution channels — and often accompanied by a restaurant or brewpub. Visit the 10 spots below (one at a time, please!) and you'll realize that some of the best suds in the world are brewed right here in Northeast Ohio.

Great Lakes Brewing Co.

Founded by Patrick and Daniel Conway in 1988, Ohio City's Great Lakes Brewing Company was critical in reviving the city's brewing tradition. Apparently, we were ready for it: Today, the award-winning craft brewery boasts a two-story brewhouse, onsite laboratories, bottling and packaging lines, and a popular restaurant serving solid brewpub fare to eager crowds. National recognition came early with Dortmunder Gold, a Great American Beer Festival Gold Medal winner that offers a smooth balance of sweet malt, dry hops, and easy quaffability. They also craft one of the best porters you'll find anywhere, the Edmund Fitzgerald. Then there are the year-round greats such as Burning River Pale Ale and seasonal suds like Christmas Ale — the beer so popular that it's widely known among fans by any of several affectionate pseudonyms that celebrate its addictive appeal. Great Lakes' steely distribution arms reach out to 12 states and Washington, D.C.

2516 Market Ave., Cleveland; 216-771-4404; greatlakesbrewing.com

Thirsty Dog Brewing Co.

Akron's Thirsty Dog truly is one of man's best friends. The canine-connected label launched in 1997 as a Canton grill, serving meals in pet dishes and beers brewed on the premises. The big dogs got serious about the beer biz in 2006, rehabbing a 120-year-old brewery in downtown Akron to make, bottle, and keg their bitchin' brews. Today's Thirsty Dog breeds nearly a dozen assorted ales, lagers, stouts, and even a Belgian-style Dubbel. Top dog is Old Leghumper (a dark brown porter), but the impressive litter includes a hoppy lager (Hoppus Maximus), an imperial stout (Siberian Night), and a holiday ale (12 Dogs of Christmas). Visit the brewery's new tasting room on Wednesdays through Saturdays, and discover why these beautiful pups are cherished in 11 states.

529 Grant St., Akron; 330-252-2739;

thirstydog.com

The Brew Kettle Taproom & Smokehouse

On one hand, Strongsville's Brew Kettle is a bar and restaurant, serving up smokehouse wings, barbecued spaghetti, and similar hearty fare. On the other, it's a brewery, crafting great elixirs like the chocolaty Black Jack Porter, the malty 4 C's Pale Ale, and the bold and hoppy Old 21 Imperial IPA. But what truly sets the Brew Kettle apart: Its brewery includes six kettles where amateurs are welcome to tackle more than 70 different recipes on their own. Yes, ambitious beer-lovers can brew, ferment, bottle, and even design a label for six cases of a handmade fave. Then again, you could just belly up to the bar and relax with a ready-made Copperhead Red, an American red ale that goes great with the restaurant's signature BBQ dishes. Like deciding between a burger or pulled pork, the choice is yours alone. The good news? There are no bad decisions.

8377 Pearl Rd., Cleveland; 440-239-8788;

thebrewkettle.com

Hoppin' Frog Brewery

Since 2000, brewmaster Fred Karm has claimed more awards than any other professional brewer in Ohio: 15 as head honcho of Akron's Thirsty Dog and two with his own Hoppin' Frog Brewery. Leaping to life in 2006, Hoppin' Frog focuses on bottled beer sold in 22-ounce bottles and meant to be consumed on special occasions. The big guzzler is B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher, which won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. This oatmeal imperial stout is full of creamy character, along with roasted malt and a serious 9.4 abv ranking. The brewery makes about a dozen other bold flavors, with a special focus on IPAs. Even though it's a small-production brewery, making around 1,000 cases per month, Hoppin' Frog is sold in 14 states and six foreign countries. Our suggestion is to visit the brewery itself, for the freshest batches of fabulous suds.

1680 East Waterloo Rd., Akron; 330-352-4578; hoppinfrog.com

Ohio Brewing Co.

In the beginning, the Ohio Brewing Company was a trendy brewpub in downtown Akron. But its beer got so popular that owner Chris Verich decided to shutter the restaurant and concentrate solely on his brewing. What followed was a move to Akron's historic Selle Generator Works building, where Verich focuses on five year-round brews, including the caramel malts of Cardinal Ale and the IPA-style kick of O'Hoppy Ale. His most popular beer is Verich Gold, a People's Choice Award winner at the 2010 Cleveland Oktoberfest, modeled after a German Kolsch-style ale. The brewery also offers five rotating seasonal beers, from the holiday-spiced Jingle Bell Ale to the summery Belgian white ale known as Buckeye Blonde. Look for them at local grocery stores, bars, and restaurants.

451 South High St., Akron; 330-252-8004; ohiobrewing.com

Buckeye Brewing Co.

Way back in 1998 — long before Indian Pale Ales were all the rage — the Buckeye Brewing Company was proudly bottling its flagship Hippie IPA. Based in the historic West Boulevard district on Cleveland's near west side, today's Buckeye is known for its full portfolio of hoppy-focused suds, like Bling Bling, a British pale ale with amaretto flavors, and its 76 IPA, brewed with centennial hops and sweet orange peel. Other finds include seasonals like Christmas Girl, a golden Belgian blonde ale, and Witless, a Belgian-style wheat beer originally introduced as a LeBron James spoof. This small regional brewery concentrates on kegs and 22-ounce bottles, but also co-owns an awesome brewpub called the Buckeye Beer Engine, which serves up burgers and dozens of drafts, including plenty of Buckeye brews.

9985 Walford Ave., Cleveland; 216-281-5347

Beer Engine: 15315 Madison Ave., Lakewood, 216-226-BEER; buckeyebrewing.com

Black Box Brewing Co.

JW Dover has been providing local brewers with equipment and supplies since 1930. But in 2006, owner Jerome Welliver decided he wanted in on the brewing biz as well. Today he produces three beers bearing the Black Box label: Javelin, an American amber ale; Plumbers Crack, an amber pale ale; and Cucumber Wheat, which is exactly what it sounds like. In addition, Black Box custom brews beers for the Western Reserve and Crooked River labels. The Black Box brand is available in six-packs and growlers at the Westlake brewery. Crooked River and Western Reserve beers are distributed in grocery stores in Cuyahoga County. And JW Dover still supplies beer- and wine-makers with all the raw materials they'll ever need.

24945 Detroit Rd., Westlake; 440-871-0700; jwdover.com/catalog

Willoughby Brewing Co.

Lake County's Willoughby Brewing Company is housed in a 100-year-old railcar-repair depot that once served the Cleveland-to-Ashtabula Interurban Rail Line. Established in 1998, the restaurant serves up American-style bar food while the brewery excels with craft beers like the malty Red Barrel Brown and Railway Razz, made with fresh Oregon raspberries. The signature pint is the Willoughby Wheat, a golden-grain wonder with a hint of citrus hops. Drinkers can enjoy the nostalgic dining quarters or just belly up to the bar, adjacent to the dance floor and backed by big brewing tanks. Whether it's a fine microbrew, a hearty meal, or a night of fist pumping fueled by a U2 cover band, the Willoughby Brewing Co. makes an excellent refuge for any season.

4057 Erie St., Willoughby; 440-975-0202; willoughbybrewing.com

Fat Heads Brewery

Pittsburgh imports generally aren't popular in Cleveland, but Fat Heads Brewery & Saloon is the exception. An offshoot of the Pittsburgh original, North Olmsted's Fat Heads specializes in hearty fare and heady beers. Choose from at least 10 house-brewed options ranging from the refreshing Starlight Lager to the hoppy Head Hunter IPA. Beers are made onsite at the massive 13,000-square-foot restaurant, which sports a 35-seat bar, 200-seat dining room, game area, and a wrap-around patio that extends the seating in the summer. The Bumbleberry Honey Blueberry Ale is the brewery's most striking beer, crafted with tart blueberries and honey from local Jorgenson's Apiary. Grab a pint or growler and pair it with one of Fat Heads' two-fisted Headwiches for a bellyful of livin' large.

24581 Lorain Rd.; North Olmsted;

440-801-1001; fatheadscleveland.com

Rocky River Brewing Co.

Rocky River is a handsome Cleveland suburb, full of gracious homes, plentiful parks, and a perfect little suds spot in its Rocky River Brewing Company. Launched more than a decade ago, the bistro and brewery has the feel of an old-school pub with a mahogany bar, pew seating, wooden floors, brick walls, and warm aromas of suds and sandwiches. The brewery crafts about two dozen beers, but only six to eight of them are tapped on a daily basis. Beer newbies can start with a Pirate Light, an easy-sipping American blonde ale that will seduce your senses. More sophisticated palates will savor the malty Oompa Loompa Chocolate Stout, a winner at both the Great American Beer Festival and the Real Ale Festival. The 5,000-square-foot dining room and pub offers a casual, family-friendly vibe that makes beer drinking seem like a great idea any time of day.

21290 Center Ridge Rd., Rocky River;

440-895-2739; rockyriverbrewco.com

More by Keith Gribbins

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